The incident appears to be associated with a side curtain airbag, a safety feature which is becoming increasingly available as standard equipment in even lower-priced vehicles as manufacturers pack their respective vehicles with front-deploy airbags, side airbags and curtain airbags in a quest to gain market share in an increasingly competitive industry dominated with buyers seeking the safest vehicles possible, at a competitive price.
According to CNN, the driver was injured April 7 of this year when, as the result of an accident, an airbag deployed and he suffered a severe laceration to his left ear. The driver, who claims in his complaint that the airbag did not deploy properly, noted that a piece of metal released in concert with the airbag deployment "sliced my ear in half…could have been [my] neck."
Curtain airbags are designed to protect the driver's head from shattered glass and other debris from an impact, together with cushioning what might otherwise be blunt-force trauma to the head from a aside impact collision. The owner of the Hyundai Elantra in question noted he has extensive photographs of the car both inside and out, images he has reportedly supplied to the NHTSA.
The agency, for its part, noted the photographs it has in its possession reveals "a metal component protruding from the left edge of the headliner above the driver's seat," that appears to have been the cause of the severe laceration to the man's left ear.
The 2012 Elantra model was recently afforded five stars by the very same NHTSA—the highest safety rating possible—for side impact collisions.
Airbag injuries sometimes occur when the occupant is sitting too close to the steering wheel, is wearing glasses, or the airbag deploys with such velocity that an injury occurs in combination with where the occupant happens to be sitting.
Sometimes, defective airbags will cause injury by simply not deploying in the first place. Such an airbag failure has also served as the basis for airbag lawsuits.
When airbags were first introduced decades ago, they deployed with such velocity that facial injuries were a frequent byproduct—and there were even some deaths. A child or small adult, sitting too close, could be facing a potentially fatal event.
When an airbag recall ensued, manufacturers decelerated airbags, and installed features whereby a passenger side frontal airbag would not deploy if the passenger sitting in the seat was below a certain weight criteria. Sensors in the seat would log, and identify weight parameters.
It should be noted that in October, Hyundai initiated two airbag recalls. Those recalls did not involve the Elantra.
Today, drivers and their passengers are increasingly sitting in an environment where they are surrounded by airbag technology—side airbags, curtain airbags and so forth. The deployment of an airbag is tied to sensors throughout the vehicle that detect an impact, and for the most part they work well.
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While cars with side airbags are popular amongst that segment of the market seeking the most collision protection possible, health advocates are nonetheless wary of the potentially explosive force virtually surrounding every occupant riding in a modern car.
Side airbags and children are equally worrisome—especially if sensors designed to control their deployment fail. And the same explosive force that deploys the airbag might conceivably dislodge some other component not designed to deploy, such as sharp plastic or even metal. The latter is the basis for the NHTSA investigation.